Few biting so far on special visa for workers

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Desperate to reinvigorate the long-stalled economy, the government has spent the past two years cozying up to highly skilled foreign workers through a batch of visa perks. There’s just one problem: few have been wooed.

Hoping to change that, the government passed a bill through the Diet in June to revise the Immigration Law, giving skilled foreigners a new visa status that allows them to stay indefinitely and with a broadened roster of privileges.

“Launching a new visa specifically designed for them means a lot, because that shows the world Japan is becoming more serious than ever about accepting those skilled foreigners,” said Immigration Bureau official Nobuko Fukuhara.

Questions remain, however, over whether creating the new visa alone will encourage more foreigners to move to Japan. Experts say little will change unless Japan brings its corporate culture more in line with global standards and reinvents itself as a place more foreigners would want to live in.

Under the current system, foreigners who earn more than 70 points in a government-designated evaluation system, based on criteria such as annual income, academic background and language skills, can stay in Japan under a “designated activities” visa status for five years.

During that time, they are granted a series of perks, including a fast track to permanent residency, working visa status for their spouses and the right to bring along their parents and housekeepers.

At the end of five years, they can switch to permanent residency, but would lose all the visa privileges they have enjoyed up to that point.

Since its launch in May 2012, the government-sponsored initiative to attract so-called highly skilled foreigners has trodden a rocky road. It kicked off with a grand goal of 2,000 registrants per year, but as of April 30, almost two years after its start, only 1,276 people were deemed eligible.

Of them, only 59 ended up using the program to enter the country as of the end of March, according to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, which oversees the program.

Meanwhile, under the revised law, which will take effect next April, foreigners who qualify for the points-based program could get a quasi-permanent residency visa status after three years, instead of the current five. Tentatively titled “highly skilled professionals,” people with this new visa could not only to stay in Japan indefinitely like permanent residents, but remain eligible for the perks for as long as they live here.

But there’s a catch. While permanent residents can do as they like, including nothing, those designated highly skilled professionals would have to keep working. In other words, they can’t stay if they get fired or retire. They will lose their privileged visa if they remain inactive for more than six months.

What’s more, Eriko Suzuki, an associate professor at Kokushikan University, says the visa perks themselves are restrictive. For example, while guaranteed the right to bring along their parents, the way the rule stands they must be the baby sitters of their grandchildren, up to age 7. This means they’ll have to leave once their child-rearing duties have ended.

“The implication is that the government doesn’t want those foreign parents to burden its social welfare system,” she said.

The bigger problem, Suzuki points out, is the overall unattractiveness of Japan’s corporate climate. Gender inequality, a deeply ingrained “organization-first” mindset and a tendency to overwork employees are all hallmarks of Japan’s corporations that repel most foreigners.

Wage systems are also different. However talented those foreigners might be, Suzuki predicts few employers would dare to pay them any better than long-term Japanese employees.

Making the working environment more foreigner-friendly is also high on the government’s agenda.

Several government ministries will work together to “identify problems regarding Japan’s lifestyles and working environments” and hash out solutions by the end of this fiscal year, the government’s growth strategies released in June said of the highly skilled foreigner program.

The Japanese government aims to lure 5,000 highly skilled foreigners by 2017.

  • Demosthenes

    Gee, that’s nice of Japan – offer a fast-track to permanent residency so they can help bolster up the country through their tax dollars. Of course, if they fall on hard times when they’re here they won’t get any social security from Japan.

    • Vijay

      Good Sir, it is the same in US. People on a work Visa are not eligible for Social Security, unemployment benefits although they pay into it. The main issue for immigrants is the work culture and competitive pay & benefits.

  • Steve Jackman

    “Experts say little will change unless Japan brings its corporate culture more in line with global standards and reinvents itself as a place more foreigners would want to live in.”

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s nothing more that needs to be said, since this sums it up perfectly.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    The fundamental problem is that Japan is competing with the likes of Hong Kong, Singapore, London, New York and San Francisco for those expats. And the others are a lot more foreigner friendly, are English speaking, to varying degrees charge you less tax, and do not sit on an earthquake fault line next to a nuclear disaster zone. The failure of this policy to attract more than 59 eligible individuals when it was designed for 2000 shows how out of touch those designing these visa policies are in reality.

    • guest

      Agreed. I don’t recommend highly skilled workers to work in Japan, at least in the science field where I come from. Not only do you have to deal with cultural, social and legal challenges (also outside work), but also with a heavily political climate where foreigners are often excluded resulting in isolation. Compared to a Japanese counterpart, a stable career for foreigners is frustrated also by limited grant options, difficulties to hire adequate personal (many Japanese tend to avoid working for foreigners), inflexible working conditions provided by universities and institutes, limited tenure-track prospects etc etc. Its sad to see many talented foreign PI’s come and eventually go. Competitiveness in my field is common everywhere, but here it is heavily flavored with nationalism. They need highly skilled foreigners for the economy bla bla bla, but as long as they can control you and you dont exceed the Japanese. Chances are much better elsewhere.

      • Steve Jackman

        As a business professional and executive with many years of experience working at Japanese companies here in Japan, I agree with everything you have written, since it applies equally to the business world in Japan.

        I would not recommend foreign professionals at any stage of their career to come to Japan for work reasons. It will leave a very bad taste in your mouth, which is difficult to get rid of.

      • RonBurgundy

        I agree with everything you and the others have said in this thread. The overall cultural and political climate here isn’t really that conducive to highly skilled workers establishing a stable career track and base of operations. I have been working in Japan for several years now and the only way it’s been bearable for me is working for smaller
        companies/startups. Bigger corporations are still stuck in the 60/70s feudalistic mindset where employees get treated like serfs and no foreigner in their right mind who has tried something better will opt to do that.

        The incentive system here is completely broken, assuming the goal is to attract skilled foreign workers.

  • Gordon Graham

    Instead of trying to attract highly skilled foreign workers why not train Japanese in the skills that are needed?

    • kension86

      If Japanese corporations’ anything like the ones here in the west, then it’s likely because the corporations would rather not spend resources on training rookies. It’s the government “paying” foreigners bonus to come over, not the corporations themselves.

      • Gordon Graham

        How about technical schools that develop the skills needed. What fields are lacking? I’ve read that Japan spends the least on education among developed nations. If they’re in such need then wouldn’t it behove them to educate their youth in areas that will benefit young Japanese hoping for a stable career and the country as a whole? I don’t get it…130,000,000 people. Are you telling me you can’t take advantage of such a vast resource?!

      • kension86

        It’s still an aging population, isn’t it? Meaning there’s more people retiring nowadays than graduating. That’s why Abe’s encouraging more women to work.

    • Steve Jackman

      Gordon, it amazes me how you never pass on a chance to make another dumb comment. Japanese companies need diversity in their ranks in order to be successful globally. Do yo think Japanese companies can sell their products in foreign countries and regions around the world, if they are staffed exclusively by Japanese employees?

      • Gordon Graham

        I don’t know…There are 130,000,000 people in this country. Are you telling me you can’t find someone for the job among 130,000,000 people in a wealthy technically advanced nation?

      • Steve Jackman

        This is not a numbers game, Gordon. What I am saying is that companies need to have a global perspective to develop products and service for international markets, so that global customers will find them appealing. Without this, you end up with what the Japanese themselves call the “Galapagos Syndrome”, and the reason why Japanese companies are losing market share and competitiveness.

        Sorry, for hurling such complex ideas at you, as it all probably went over your head. But, I hope you can stop repeating your silly mantra of 130,000,000 people, 130,000,000 people, 130,000,000 people…

      • Gordon Graham

        You say Global perspective like it’s unfathomable…People throughout the world have the same standards when it comes to products and services…quality and price.

      • Jamie Bakeridge

        Seriously Gordon, take Steve Jackman’s advice. You’re embarrassing yourself!

      • Gordon Graham

        I realize there’s much I don’t know. I’ve no inkling to feel any shame about that. So enlighten me, Jamie.

    • RonBurgundy

      Yeah, why is is that after 50 years of being an international economic super power, they still can’t speak English, create products that are interesting to overseas markets and be competitive on a global scale?

      • Gordon Graham

        Every time I see a war break out on this planet, the rebels invariably are driving a Toyota (never a Chevrolet), be it the Sudan or Afghanistan…If they are falling behind in the electronics market is because the interesting products they’ve created have been copied and made cheaper by Korean and Chinese companies.

      • Steve Jackman

        “if they are falling behind in the electronics market it is because the interesting products they’ve created have been copied and made cheaper by Korean and Chinese companies”.

        Gordon, in spite of your advancing age, you seem to have missed an important point. Rewind 40 years and you may as well be talking about how Japan undercut prices and copied products made by American and European companies. What goes around, comes around.

        The difference is that the U.S and to some extent Europe, were able to move up the value chain (using creative destruction in some cases, which is often necessary). Japan on the other hand, seems unable to do this and that is wht it is stuck in this situation.

  • Steve Novosel

    Well, it’s just a poor system. There’s no point to it. I’d be eligible by the points system but there’s no reason to apply.

    Just make a permanent residency status easier to obtain for professionals. Make it so highly qualified people can apply after 3 or 5 years and expect to get it, not like the current 10 years. Make it the same as the current PR status, just easier to obtain.

  • K T

    I am reminded of a comedian who had a routine about drugs:
    You don’t advertise illegal drugs.
    You don’t market them,
    Yet in any city, in any country, people who want them will find someone selling them…
    I.e. – if people want it, they will find it.

    Japan’s “sweet visa deal”, it turns out, is not that sweet.
    The government of Japan, it seems, is trying to appeal to skilled workers, by offering them peanuts now, and nothing in the future. These are not the types of people just looking for an hourly wage.
    This is another case of the all-Japanese panel on the “let’s increase skilled foreigner immigration to Japan” committee from the Japanese government not having a clue as to what appeals to non-Japanese skilled workers.

    The goal of this, and other Japanese programs is to keep foreigners out, while showing the international community that they are “trying very hard” to increase immigration.
    Mission accomplished!!!